Saturday, May 18, 2024

The Dance Party at City Hall in 2016. (Photo: David Kong)

The city’s Dance Party in front of City Hall in June is canceled, and whether there will be the usual Cambridge Arts Open Studios event in the fall is uncertain as well.

News of the Dance Party cancellation came not long after word of the rebranding of the Cambridge Arts River Festival into a year of smaller “ripple” events rather than a daylong gathering. That late-spring event was estimated to draw more than 175,000 people annually.

Similarly, the Cambridge Arts agency said of Open Studios that is “hoping to organize some [smaller] group, in-person markets in the coming months – dependent, of course, on how Covid continues,” according to the agency’s Greg Cook.

As to the Dance Party, staff in the City Manager’s Office and Mayor’s Office “will continue to look at alternatives for a similar, smaller event in the Central Square area for later in the summer or early fall,” according to the April 15 weekly digest sent to city councillors by the city manager. The news was first tweeted Wednesday by independent journalist John Hawkinson.

There’s a chance, though, that both events will be back this year in roughly familiar form.

Dance Party

The Dance Party may become a project of the Central Square Business Improvement District – permanently.

The party started with only 500 attendees in 1996, but crowds grew to around 25,000 to 30,000 in the years immediately before the Covid pandemic, filling the street in front of City Hall with dancing to DJ’d music and sophisticated light shows. The city hasn’t said why the event was canceled for 2022 despite the end of mask mandates, overall high vaccination rates and outdoors events being considered safer in terms of Covid transmission; a query was emailed Friday to the City Manager’s Office and mayor, but it was sent after those offices closed for the day at noon. This story will be updated if there is a response.

Update on Aug. 1, 2022: An additional clue to the end of the city-run Dance Party came midsummer, as the City Council issued a resolution honoring Maryellen Carvello of the City Manager’s Office as she retired from public service. Among the work she did during her 39 years in City Hall was being “the driving force behind creating and planning the Annual Dance Party,” and several councillors credited her skills and energy in planning the events.

Luis Cotto, the executive director of the BID and a former city councilor in Hartford, Connecticut, said that “the assumption is always Covid concerns.” He said he understood the weight of a city sponsoring an event where people would be crowded together, and not just in terms of legal liability. “At the very least there’s an ethical responsibility not to say one thing and then do another, which is permitting throngs of people to get together,” Cotto said.

A Dance Party is being considered for September, run by the BID in collaboration with the Central Square-based Dance Complex, Cotto said.

Jason Weeks, executive director of Cambridge Arts, said his discussions with city officials and Cotto suggested that BID leadership could be the new normal for a “beloved event.”

“I don’t know if that’s fully possible, or what that means, but it’s also a question in the context of such change happening in the City Manager’s Office come July,” when City Manager Louis A. DePasquale retires, Weeks said. “What would be the future of that event? Will the next city manager continue to make a commitment? Nobody’s sure. So the BID smartly kind of stepped into that space and started to ask that question.”

If the Dance Party does happen in September, “it has to be couched in the context of safety. If anybody’s paying attention, apparently there’s still a global pandemic among us,” Weeks said.

Open Studios

A group show was set up at the CambridgeSide mall in 2018 as part of Cambridge Arts Open Studios. (Photo: Greg Cook)

With Somerville’s Open Studios set to take place April 30 to May 1 and artists opening their studios to the public to display and sell work despite Covid – “mask when requested,” the Somerville Open Studios organization says – Cantabrigians may wonder what prevents their own event from moving forward definitively. Even some members of Cambridge’s Open Studios Advisory Board have expressed concern.

But there may yet be time.

Cambridge Open Studios has been a spring event since Cambridge Arts took it over in 2009, but that stopped in 2018 with a move to the fall, ending up on the third Saturday in September. (The event was built on the artist-run Cambridgeport Artists Open Studios, which had been in the fall, and North Cambridge All Arts Open Studios, which had been in spring.)

It may be held in September again, based in part on the results of a survey that Weeks said is being prepared. “Anytime we make plans with Open Studios we survey the participating artists for the last number of years as a first step, to [see] how are they feeling about opening up their homes and their studios,” Weeks said. “We know spaces in Cambridge are small. Some people are ready to rock, other people are not when it comes to pandemic. We need to hear that from folks.”

When the artist-run open studios invited the city to take over, Cambridge Arts opened the door to artists who work in Cambridge as well as those who live here; that requires group venues for those who didn’t have studios in the city. That makes for an extra wrinkle in “such a sort of weird and transitional year,” Weeks said. “We have to be careful about that as a public-sector agency. And as part of the City of Cambridge, we take cues from the city administration, City Council and especially in this case from the Cambridge Health Alliance. We can’t just decide we’re going to do something because we want to or because there’s pent-up desire.”

In addition, the community arts team left during Covid – Julie Barry to Salem and Kirsten Swartz to Vermont – and new director of community arts Deena Anderson is working to multiply visual arts opportunities as well as get “back to doing open studios in the traditional fashion,” Weeks said. That’s slowed the survey, he suggested.

Among recent community arts events were an online market with virtual artists talks in the fall of 2020 and early 2021 and an in-person, group winter market in November, Cook said. The second weekend of the market at Masonic Hall in Porter Square was canceled when a citizen noted that the hall lacked adequate access for the disabled and no alternative sites were found.